One of the most recognizable photographs from the silent comedy era shows a bespectacled young man dangling from a multi-story clock face above downtown Los Angeles.
Now you can catch all of that thrilling scene when The News-Gazette Film Series screens Harold Lloyd’s 1923 comedy classic, “Safety Last,” at the Virginia Theater this Saturday, May 20, at 1 and 7 p.m.
Of the three great silent comedy geniuses – Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd – Lloyd was the most successful at the box office.
He made more films than Chaplin and Keaton combined, and his ordinary on-screen character, both intelligent and ambitious, spoke more immediately to contemporary audiences.
But afterward he became the lesser known because, unlike the other two comedians, he owned all the rights to his films, and he didn’t want them to be released under less than ideal conditions.
This meant, for example, with organ accompaniment rather than piano and certainly not on television.
So for decades hardly anyone saw his movies after their original theatrical releases, because they just sat in his own private vault.
But because of that, when he was finally convinced to make them available again, these near-pristine original negatives and prints provided some of the sharpest, sharpest images you’ll find from films of this period.
And those clear images add to the thrills of the climactic stunt of “Safety Last,” where Harold ends up having to climb the side of a building as a publicity stunt to win his girlfriend’s hand.
You can see downtown LA stretching out behind and below Harold as he climbs, and it’s obviously the real street, not some kind of faked photograph.
The simple plot has Harold, credited simply as “The Boy”, traveling to Los Angeles to earn money to marry “The Girl” (played by Mildred Davis, whom he married in real life shortly after this movie).
He finds himself a clerk in a department store, but she thinks he is the manager.
To earn a big payout for the store promotion, it offers a guaranteed crowd magnet – climb up the side of the store.
His friend, Bill (Bill Strother), is a steeple jack who can actually do it, but a run-in with a cop forces Harold to do the climb himself.
Lots of complications ensue and you’d be surprised how many animals can interfere with you while you try not to fall from several floors.
Lloyd hated heights (as did Davis), but when he saw Strother climbing the side of a building in Los Angeles, he decided he had to use him in a movie.
So basically the stunt idea came first, and the rest of the movie was designed to lead to that.
The early 1920s saw a plethora of real-life stunt entertainment – people sat on flagpoles for days, participated in dance marathons, stepped on the wings of airborne airplanes , went over Niagara Falls in barrels and climbed outside of buildings.
Strother, in fact, had already scaled the 56-story Woolworth Building in New York.
Several of Lloyd’s “thrill movies” feature stunts over the street, but “Safety Last” features the longest and most complicated.
“Thrill films” is Lloyd’s own way of referring to these stunt-centric comedies, and “Safety Last” is the only comedy to make America’s 100 “America’s Most Heart-Pounding Films” list. American Film Institute.
Lloyd performed this stunt without the aid of a harness securing him to the building – and without the thumb and index finger of his right hand.
About three years earlier, a propeller bomb exploded while he was holding it and blew them up.
In later movies, he wore a glove on that hand with fake numbers to make it look normal.
Lloyd never took on a director or writer on his films, but he was the driving force behind each one.
His ideas influenced his comedic peers (as they in turn did), but he also had a significant impact on dramatic films.
The chase through Los Angeles and Culver City in his 1924 “Girl Shy,” for example, inspired filming of the classic chariot race in “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” the following year.
When the sound arrived, Lloyd’s career declined.
His voice matched his character but not Hollywood standards for leading male voices.
And dialogue meant he needed more character development from his scripts (scripts had been minimal for his silent films), and that in turn meant less flexibility to improvise on set – and more expenses.
His upbeat persona also didn’t connect as well with Depression-era audiences.
Thankfully, though, he’s held on to all of his films even as his contemporary box office appeal has dried up, so audiences can once again marvel and laugh — and gasp — at his timing and audacity today. today.